By Judith Rubin
ABOVE: One of WhiteWater’s products “on the move” is their Endless Surf system, which provides customizable waves designed for a wide range of surfer abilities. Installations of the new wave technology are slated for Europe, Asia and Australia. All images courtesy of WhiteWater
True to its name, WhiteWater is in constant activity while retaining its essential nature. This leading supplier to the international water parks and attractions industry has grown, adapted and thrived over four decades. The Vancouver, Canada-based company recently announced some significant leadership changes: founder Geoff Chutter continues as CEO while his son Paul Chutter, who joined the company seven years ago as Chief Business Development Officer, succeeds to the role of President, and in that role has initiated additional corporate restructuring, including several promotions.
People on the move within WhiteWater also include Onno Meeter (now Chief Operating Officer), Doug Smith (now Global Head of Sales), Franceen Gonzales (now Chief Experience Officer), David Bogdonov (now Regional Vice President, Asia Pacific) and Rainer Maelzer (now President, WhiteWater ERA GmbH) and others. There are products on the move too – not only does WhiteWater have its own fiberglass manufacturing division and stands as a market leader in water slides and water rides, the company has developed additional, unique product lines including Vantage, FlowRider and Endless Surf.
Good succession planning, strong leadership and innovation are important elements for a company to prevail over the long term, but there are other attributes that are key to WhiteWater’s solid, successful business culture, that emerged in the course of researching this article:
- Vision and a sense of purpose: focusing on what they do better than anyone (water-based entertainment)
- Building the best possible team with the best people
- Setting the company on a path to even more efficient operations
“Approaching the world in a uniquely WhiteWater way” (vision and purpose)
A sense of purpose or mission promotes a supportive environment in which dedicated employees pull together, live in the present and keep the company going even in tough times. The year 2020 was the epitome of tough times, yet, for WhiteWater it wrapped up as a notable success. The company closed its books for 2020 comfortably in the black, despite a slow start due to the pandemic.
Paul Chutter says, “The first six months after COVID took hold were very worrying and caused us all to take a second look at the industry, at our own businesses, how we run them, and the future. Moments like this – a once-in-a-generation challenge – are an invitation to be introspective. We found that the underlying strength of the location-based entertainment (LBE) space bodes well for the future writ large. Very few projects were canceled outright. For us, it was a reaffirmation of our diversification strategy and the structural changes we were already implementing. It fueled our optimism.”
For WhiteWater, since the third quarter of 2020, “the industry has been roaring back to life in a segmented way,” says Paul. Looking at the world picture, “The US will be the most challenged regional market, followed by Europe, until things are truly open for business coast to coast; its real recovery will be in 2022. China has, on the whole, remained robust and healthy, Southeast Asia also but to a slightly lesser extent. Tourism has snapped back very quickly in the Middle East, which will prove to be a tremendous engine of growth for WhiteWater and the industry over the next 5-10 years. We have a strong commitment to this region.”
Some of the company’s current success is due to WhiteWater’s technology division, Vantage, a supplier of proprietary software available by license that touches operations, guest experience and data collection. Vantage is led by Phil Edgell, formerly VP Global Sales Operations at Hootsuite. “We conceived of Vantage a number of years ago as an opportunity for tech to play a role in our space and recruited a skilled team from the tech sector to lead it,” says Paul, who forecasts that in 2021 Vantage will be the source of “a number of very high-profile project announcements this year that are a tremendous testament to the team.” Vantage has also pivoted over the past 12 months to play a role in combating COVID, with the technology being leveraged for contact tracing in senior’s residences as well as businesses in the US and Canada.
WhiteWater’s international coverage includes established offices in Dubai, (covering the Middle East and India), Shanghai (covering Asia), Munich (covering Europe, Russia and Africa – led by Rainer Maelzer) as well as offices in Denver and, of course, the Vancouver head office as North American base. Geoff Chutter says, “Having a local presence is very important, and the company has never been stronger, which during a pandemic is a great tribute to the people of the company. You have to be looking forward and not backward, to confront old ways of thinking, confront the fear of what’s new and different. We have approached the world in a uniquely WhiteWater way of questioning ‘why not?’”
“Mindset over skillset” (best possible team)
Geoff Chutter says, “Our focus and differentiator is people, not just inside the company, but customers and their guests as well. The only way to do that successfully is to underscore everything with a huge degree of respect, the ability to listen and understand what their issues are and respond accordingly.”
Using a metaphor from Jim Collins’ business classic, “Good to Great,” Geoff spoke of “getting the right people on the bus and having them sitting in the right seats. In this way, I can surround myself with people who are smart and do things better than I could do. This makes my job easier. All too often, people in leadership roles think they’re better than others, and that isn’t productive.” He has also been influenced by the unorthodox approach to team building laid out in “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention” by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer. “The book has really interesting takeaways in terms of trust and alignment and strategy, densification of talent in your employee group, and pushing skillsets higher and higher. “Those takeaways have been really important for the growth of WhiteWater so that we’re not just doing the same thing – but breaking through walls, taking things to the next level and doing well in all these diversifications.”
Paul Chutter says, “While our model is constantly evolving, we’re always mindful of the desire to provide upward mobility and new or renewed opportunities for all employees, and always positioning valued employees for success. Their personal and professional growth drives growth for the organization as a whole.”
“It has been an ongoing focus of mine not to compromise – at all – on the people side,” says Geoff. “We have gone far and wide in the world to find the right people. Our recruiting process is designed to get a solid knowledge of a candidate’s character and abilities. First and foremost, we learn what kind of person they are – looking for positive traits and compassion – and then it’s on to the ability side – can they do the work. It’s mindset over skillset.”
Onno Meeter’s experience corroborates this. “I interviewed with about 10 different people and had to take a test when I joined the company in 2017. There was a lot of emphasis on personality and ability to fit into the team. Geoff is keen on keeping a service culture in the company, and that appealed to me as well.”
Peter Cooper, who leads the WhiteWater SlidePath team and has been with the company from its earliest days, said: “Working with Geoff… he’s passionate, he’s down to earth, he takes an interest. And that passion has spilled over to Paul. When you look at the people and the company, you can see how that passion has driven things, and how it attracts others with the same commitment to excellence.”
“Supply chain perspective” (optimizing efficiency)
Supply chain expert Onno Meeter was promoted to COO in 2019, becoming a member of the executive leadership team. Prior to joining WhiteWater, he worked in the electronics and lighting industries. He is glad he made the change. “People love WhiteWater’s product,” says Meeter. “It is fun to create fun, making the world a more joyful place and my children, ages 6 and 11, can finally relate to what I do.”
Meeter’s role spans multiple departments and disciplines. As COO he looks at the big picture and sees all the connections, which often leans on supply chain and shipping to serve projects around the world. “Everything from the moment we sign a contract becomes my responsibility, from the engineering supply chain to installation quality, customer service and beyond,” he says.
It’s a complex, global picture as WhiteWater manufacturing in Canada is now augmented by manufacturing with partners in other regions such as Asia and the Philippines. “‘Local for local’ is a phrase we use, that means to build locally for local markets,” he says. “It reduces our shipping footprint, and by building trusted partnerships we are able to control costs and quality just as closely as in our own Canadian plants.” According to Meeter, supply-chain thinking is still in early phases in the entertainment sector: “Other industries are a lot more evolved in the tracking and tracing of parts.” He is currently in the process of implementing an Enterprise Resource Plan at WhiteWater to optimize efficiency.
Meeter works alongside Paul Chutter, and together they ensure WhiteWater delivers its promises balancing demands and the forecast. “Geoff sits over the top of that, looking at the whole corporation (the four separate brands) and how we lead into the future.”
Meeter reinforces Whitewater’s commitment to being an industry leader in the areas of safety and sustainability. “Our products are increasing in complexity and thrill; therefore, we always need to be at the top of our game to deliver a safe experience to the users. Whether it is with Life Floor or Vantage, all our products lead to a safer experience.” Regarding sustainability: “Whitewater understands the importance of reducing our footprint and is making sure we think about material usage, water consumption and energy consumption in everything we do. I believe WhiteWater can lead the way for our industry to do much more in terms of becoming greener.”
“We solve puzzles”
While things have changed and will continue to change, the hallmarks of WhiteWater company culture hold steady.
Peter Cooper is a civil and structural technologist and 40-year WhiteWater veteran. The way his SlidePath team works epitomizes the company’s approach: a blend of technical and creative innovation, team management with an emphasis on communication, and letting people shine.
Cooper is said to be the most experienced slide path designer in the world, and his department’s responsibility is literally to “create the path of the slide, which includes developing the path itself, the support layout, the towers and platforms and queue lines, walkways and stairways, working with structural engineers and thinking about guest flow, physical orientation and sightlines. We follow the standards to ensure that what is proposed is something that can be built. It needs to be interesting and unique, fun and safe.”
He builds his team with people who have both technical and creative facility and a breadth of skills. “Currently seven people strong, my team includes people trained in architecture and industrial design as well as engineering, because aesthetics are important as well as technical accuracy and buildability. It’s super-beneficial to have a cross-section of hard skills and the ability to communicate well, which is useful internally and in working with clients. One person can’t know everything; we learn from one another. We solve puzzles.”
THEN AND NOW:
Cooper’s favorite project from back in the day was a 1990s waterslide installation at Rokko Island (Kobe, Japan), in which some 50 waterslides were successfully shoehorned into a relatively modest footprint. “It looked like a plate of spaghetti, it was so densely packed,” he says. “I drew it up on onionskin paper, spending three or four weeks, using circle templates and set squares before it was transferred to computer. We built it – and everything fit – and I went out and tested 50 waterslides!”
Says Cooper, “Rides today are a lot more complicated, and the way we do our job has changed. We employ many more tools for analysis. In place of onionskin, we use CAD and 3D modeling. And the company has grown tremendously. I’ve been along for the whole journey. When we started, I sensed it was going to be a big industry although not as big as it became.”
“Water is the space in which we play” (what they do best)
Paul Chutter says, “We want to remain the global experts in water attractions. That is the space in which we play, with thousands of installations around the world. There is one throughline, and that is water. For instance, our company history includes 35 years in the wave generating space, which has led us to the inland surf space and our most recent company/product launch: Endless Surf. It’s an explosive space and we are leveraging our multi-decades-long engineering pedigree. And there is great promise in the new and increasingly popular model of the water theme park – a park with a wider range of water-related rides and experiences, some wetter than others.”
“When we started out, the waterpark industry as such didn’t exist,” says Geoff Chutter. “We had to come up with our own molds to make our first set of waterslides. We got on by knowing a little bit more than the next fellow. Our unique business model and four axes of diversification have served us well.”
Growing up, Paul Chutter never thought he’d join the family business. “I did not know it would happen. My father and I never even spoke about it happening,” he says. “I had a strong desire to forge my own path and career, and it was only after I was well down that path [international banking] that this discussion started to occur – and then, only because at that point, I felt that if I did walk through that door, I was in a position to add genuine value to the company.”
Geoff Chutter says, “I never had the aspiration of Paul getting involved. So many issues can arise when kids join their parents’ company. It was after he’d gone on and proved himself in other industries, and was at a point in his life where he was starting a family and looking at the path ahead, that we began that conversation. It has been great fun to have him at my side, to grow the company together, and it is a very successful collaboration. He sees new opportunities and ways of doing things that have really pushed us forward. He is so much stronger than I was at his age and he is driven, detailed, a great manager of people. We have more to do, more to create, to provide ever greater value to our clients. I’m genuinely excited about what’s ahead.”
“As venues grow in scope and scale and look for more differentiation in experience, it enables the creation of a product family or portfolio that we, at WhiteWater, believe in very strongly,” says Paul. “There is tremendous opportunity today.”